Vietnam is obviously not a country with many Christians, although we did pass through some Catholic villages in the Mekong that were prettily decked out with bunting and sparkly stars. But these few religious observances aside, Christmas is a huge sparkly secular party here. And in Saigon the party is epic – everything is decorated, and absolutely everyone is on the streets. It’s like New Year’s Eve in Times Square or Hogmanay on Princes Street – multiplied by massive motorcycle madness!
The crowds are unbelievable, with thousands of people thronging the sidewalks and spilling into the not inconsiderable traffic. And of course, traffic in Saigon has its own special rhythm: to cross the street, one has to make a leap of faith and walk slowly and confidently into oncoming vehicles. Bikes will swerve around you or slow down if they see you coming while you should slow down for cars as bigger vehicles get priority. It’s terrifying at first but once you get the hang of moving predictably, you can get a feel for it. But on Christmas Eve? It’s utter madness. Crossing the wide French colonial boulevard Nguyen Hue felt like dicing with death, but everyone was doing it, and doing it with small children and Santa hats to boot, so how dangerous could it really be?
We made it across in one piece, took a deep breath and dived into the crowds. The streets of the city centre were full of everyone, but most of all young people. Christmas Eve is party night and while the olds might stay at home, all self-respecting young people are out all night. We wandered around in a blurry haze of partygoers, enjoying the buzz of a giant street party and the kids in glammed out gear spraying fake snow on one another.
But there’s another key part of Saigon Christmas I haven’t mentioned yet. It’s all about people taking photographs of one another in front of vaguely Christmasy things. All the fancy shops on Le Loi and Dong Khoi have holiday decorations and people are constantly pressing in to pose in front of them. No matter how lame or tacky, everything with tinsel, lights, or snow has a throng of posing girls, couples and families in front. At a certain point, it doesn’t even have to be Christmas themed. We saw people having their pictures taken in front of the Gucci store, which at least had some lights up, and the Louis Vuitton window, which is just a regular display! (I’m not even getting to the cognitive dissonance of the Uncle Ho poster right next to Louis Vuitton.) It’s a completely meta holiday in which the entire point is to document the fact that Christmas happened and you were there.
When we’d had as much of the madness as we could cope with, we headed to Christmas dinner at Quan Nuong, a Vietnamese barbecue restaurant with a lovely roof terrace. Up on top of a city centre building, the terrace edged with banana and bamboo branches made a cool and relatively quiet place for a celebratory meal. Vietnamese barbecue works a bit like Korean style: each table has a built in grill and you order food mostly raw to cook yourself, with a few prepared sides. We started with vegetable skewers, which were generous layers of okra, mushroom, aubergine and carrot, all marinaded in something sweet and garlicky.
We couldn’t resist wild boar in five spice marinade, tender slices of pig that matched wonderfully with the deep flavours of anise and cinnamon.
For a seafood fix, we had squid in lemongrass and chili sauce, which also came with a zippy cabbage slaw. We don’t have any photos of either cooked squid or boar, partly because we spent so much of our time managing the cooking and partly because as soon as the meat was cooked, we were too excited about it to wait and wolfed it down undocumented! We did, however, have a splendid array of condiments, including nuoc cham, some kind of soy chili sauce, and the ubiquitous salt, pepper, lime combo I used to think was only Cambodian, but now realise is popular here too.
Finally, and possibly unnecessarily, we ordered banana flower salad, which I’ve been dying to eat because I see banana flower everywhere at the markets. This dish was delicious and the fresh shredded banana flowers were a new taste to me that I suspect will be impossible to replicate at home. Sigh. The whole meal was excessive, delicious, and completely fun to make and eat at the table. In other words, it was perfect for Christmas party night!
Saigon celebrates everything I like about Christmas: the glitter, the sparkles, the party atmosphere and the over-eating, and it ignores all of the pesky religious stuff. Plus, it has wild boar… In the spirit of fake snow and teen motorcycle parties, the happiest of happy Christmases from the Lemurs!
Quan Nuong, 29-31 Ton That Thiep St, 2nd floor (entrance is a small door next to the splendidly named Fanny ice cream cafe)